Fibre optic technologies for the next 50 years

It might be hard to imagine but we were already talking about fibre to the home networks back in the 1970s and 1980s. This was in the early days of interactive TV and pay TV and fibre optics were already at that time seen as the next level of telecoms infrastructure needed for such services. The first residential fibre pilot networks were built in Berlin and Nagasaki. One of the most ambitious projects was in Columbus Ohio, but in the end they decided to continue with their HFC network.

What this shows is that, while the timing was wrong, the FttH vision of that time was a valid one. And the implementation of that vision is finally happening.

It is important to realise is that here we are talking about infrastructure and not about the services that are being carried over it; 40 years ago it was also video-based entertainment that was driving the vision of FttH. However it required Netflix and its streaming brothers and sisters to push this over the line.

So now, 40 years on, it might be worthwhile to start looking at what will be in store for us in another 40 years’ time. And, no, there is nothing revolutionary on the horizon in relation to fixed telecoms infrastructure – nothing similar to, for example, the total replacement of copper and HFC by fibre networks. Wireless will see more developments, but natural science predicts that there will always be the capacity problem in relation to spectrum, and it is therefore not suitable for mass-market high-quality video (which over that time will certainly have moved further towards 4K and 8K).

All predictions indicate that it will be further improvements in fibre technology, rather than something totally new, which will drive change here. Change will be driven by developments in new types of fibre that are more cost-effective, as we can already see with fibre optic networks that were installed 20 years ago. It is no longer economical to maintain these networks. Several submarine cables are having to deal with this. Here we have seen that 20+ year old 2.5Gbit/s networks can now be upgraded to 40Gbit/s and even 100+Gbit/s networks.

Looking to the future, one of these new fibre technologies is known as photonic-crystal fibre and this is what Wikipedia has to say about it ……

Photonic-crystal fibre (PCF) is a new class of optical fibre based on the properties of photonic crystals. Because of its ability to confine light in hollow cores or with confinement characteristics not possible in conventional optical fibre, PCF is now finding applications in fibre-optic communications, fibre lasers, nonlinear devices, high-power transmission, highly sensitive gas sensors, and other areas.

More specific categories of PCF include photonic-bandgap fibre (PCFs that confine light by band gap effects; holey fibre (PCFs using air holes in their cross-sections); hole-assisted fibre (PCFs guiding light by a conventional higher-index core modified by the presence of air holes); and Bragg fibre (photonic-bandgap fibre formed by concentric rings of multi-layer film). Photonic crystal fibres may be considered a subgroup of a more general class of micro-structured optical fibres, where light is guided by structural modifications, and not only by refractive index differences.

Current estimates are that with these new technologies fibre optic cable will remain viable for at least the next 50 years. This brings us to a timeframe equal to the one when we first started to talk about a commercial FttH vision. Obviously it is hard to make predictions about things that we have not yet envisaged, even in science fiction scenarios. The next level could quite possibly be based on neurological-based communication based on our brainwaves. Who knows?

Paul Budde

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